women's writing


Mary Novik
Doubleday Canada, 352 pages, $22.95
Reviewed by 
Lorrie Miller

Vancouver-based writer Mary Novik’s first novel, Conceit, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2007 and won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2008. Muse is Novik’s second novel, and is set deep in history, both in time and detail. Novik weaves the story of fictitious protagonist, Solange, a spunky redheaded seer, into events of fourteenth-century Avignon including the historic personalities of the time: the poet Petrarch, his brother Gherardo, and Pope Clement VI. 

From the beginning I was hooked: “I first hear my mother’s heartbeat from inside her dark surrounding womb.” This powerful image was followed by one of Solange’s defining visions. She could recall what we can’t, or shouldn’t; the depths of the past, the images of one’s future. “His face was as clear to me as the blood vessels inside her womb, his skin foxed with a tracery of veins I looked straight into his eyes and they were as hard and blue as lapis lazuli” (page 3). With this rich opening page there was no going back. 

Born above a tavern to a prostitute, Solange is the narrator of her own tale, a dark story, but not without hope. When things seem impossibly bad for a young Solange, she simply starts over. We follow her through her attempts to find a niche for herself in the scriptorium at the abbey where she is raised, to the streets and then to the court of Avignon. As a child, Solage never takes her situation for granted when things are going in her favour, nor allows a bad situation to linger. Ultimately, as she matures, she learns to depend on herself and her array of skills, whether that be as scribe, lover, or prophetess. She thinks on her feet like an actor might, and shifts into the role necessary to see her through every situation. Though talented, Solange is not without flaws (as she has a frustrating weakness for the affection of fame-driven poet, Petrarch). It is in her imperfection that we find her real and likable.

Taking in the visuals while reading this story is akin to walking through a gallery of Renaissance paintings at a brisk pace; I find the description rich, and yet not bogged down with too many details, a difficult task when setting a story into an unfamiliar scene. A particularly gorgeous line is when Solange considers the text in the scriptorium where she is training to become a scribe, and widow Madame de Fores tells Solange to see how “‘Each word is like a ripe fruit eager to be bitten into.’ She showed me how to take the words and roll them in my mouth” (page 22). In that moment I am there with the young scribe, enjoying the awe of her newly found passion for language and the printed page. 

Muse takes us through the inner workings of a fourteenth century abbey, to back alleys and brothels, and to the papal apartments in Avignon. Novik keeps the plot of her richly detailed novel moving. Yet, when it lingers, it is for deliberation and focus; for this it works. Muse is a story whose plot pulled at me while the language whispered to slow, so as to not miss a thing. 


Glossolalia Cover
Marita Dachsel
Anvil Press, 93 pages, 2013, $18.00
Reviewed by 
Jennifer Zilm
There are many versions of the story,”says Eliza Roxcy Snow at the end of B.C. poet Marita Dachsel’s second trade collection (several poems of which appeared in Room 32:3). Snow is one of thirty-four wives of the 19th century prophet Joseph Smith who speaks through Dachsel in verse primarily characterized by short, lyrical and direct lines, yet punctuated by prose pieces, an erasure, and other innovative uses of page space. With such a myriad of voices it is inevitable that sometimes the voices do blur together and one senses this might be intentional, a part of the cacophony of tongues hinted at by the title. For the most part, however, Dachsel is to be commend-ed for conveying the distinctiveness of these voices though the aforementioned experiments with space and form and by a strong narrative imagination, which imbues plausibity to these women. Particularly striking are the voices of “Fanny Alger,” the Smiths’s maid who longs for the affection of Joseph Smith’s one legal wife Emma. Also striking is the voice of the middle-aged midwife “Patty Bartlett Sessions,” who regrets the role she has played “delivering” women into the polygamous lifestyle. There is a humour in both these poems that balances the individual women’s pathos that is often found throughout the book. 
The two “loudest” voices in the collection are that of Emma and of Eliza. These women took different paths within the early Mormon Church. After Smith’s assassination, Emma chose not to follow Smith’s successor Brigham Young to Utah and vociferously denied Smith’s polygamous activity. Snow, who was a poet, chose to move with the early Mormons and married Young (for time, not eternity—a distinction Dachsel explains in her notes). Both women are marked by their childbearing, or, in Eliza’s case, lack thereof. In a striking pas-sage early in the book Emma notes in an address to her husband: “You used to say I looked beautiful / pregnant … But my babies were buried / at a rate I considered laboring / squatted over a muddy hole.” 
Emma’s four poems are scattered at intervals throughout the book, and she is often a subject in poems of other wives. Eliza, whose voice closes the book, opens her testimony by noting that she “will never feel the ache / of filling breasts / heavy for release.” Eliza is the most nuanced of Dachsel’s voices. She is vocal in her sexual desire, refusing to be just a wife. Looking back on her life, she laments the squandered potential of the female saints, and recounts using her sexuality to advance feminist theological positions: “I told him / a father in heaven is a fine idea, / but don’t we need a mother too? Every man deserves at least one wife, / even God. / With his hand/ on my thigh / he agreed.” In the sequence, however, just as in the many of the poems, the possibilities for women’s advancement in the early move-ment are squashed as the women are inevitably played against each other. Emma’s menacing presence lingers throughout Eliza’s account, hinting at the former woman’s violence against the latter. The sexual and spiritual kin-ship between Joseph and Eliza is ultimately eclipsed by this rivalry, and it is the strife among sister-wives that closes the book.

She Draws the Rain

She Draws the Rain cover
Carole Chambers
Thistledown Press, 80 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by 
Candace Fertile
The sense of place infuses Carole Chambers’ fifth book of poetry. The pages are full of the rain and trees of Hornby Island, off the west coast of B.C. Many of the poems are about connections, either with the beauty and fecundity of the landscape or the friends and relatives who share it. 
The title poem is dedicated to Elizabeth Macdonald, who also took the cover photograph, a gorgeous image titled bull kelp. The poem has an odd beginning: “It was a dead / boring Sunday” and then continues to tell the story of two friends and a dog out in the rain. One is successful: “she, / raised on the prairie / where the sky is the sea, / drew the rain exquisitely.” The speaker’s boredom is contradicted by what happens, but at the end she is still experiencing “ennui” while seeing beauty in her friend’s drawing. 
Overall the longer poems in this collection work better as they offer the chance to slide into the space and sound and revel in both. “The Forest,” a six-page celebration of a couple’s hike into an area once logged and an abandoned homestead has beautiful description, “We climb under the green roof / of summer, a breeze idling / in the tops of maples and alders,” and a sensitive consideration of the deteriorating house: “No ghost remains / of the people who dwelt here, / just the healing of a scar.” And the couple continues further into the forest into “vast receding galleries / of ancient cedar trunks / shot through / with pale columns of light.” When Chambers moves through the forest, her steps and her words are sure. 
In “A Poem for Jesus (from a Pantheist),” Chambers manages in two pages to capture her belief in the magic and mysticism of the forest: “When every tree / is the Rood, resurrected. / Jubilate.” That belief is weirdly undercut by the four-page poem “Paradise,” which deals with the creation of Adam and Eve. This poem feels out of place in this collection as its subject and jokey tone (“God let off a little steam”) disrupt the seriousness and beauty of the rest of the book. 
In a few poems, Chambers moves away from the Hornby setting, and does so gracefully and sadly. For example, “Exile” describes the perilous journey of a Lama and twenty monks from Tibet, trying to escape persecution. This poem indelibly marks the sense of loss: “There are rituals of courtesy, / rituals of hospitality, / of respectfulness, / there are rituals of obedience / and worship, / but none for leaving.” Leaving home causes heartbreak and can result in death. 
Persecution is also dealt with in “Beautiful Bones,” which shows the horror of a family’s separation, mother and son incarcerated in a camp, father “sent to Hell / on the Burma road to break his / back and his fine ideas / and turn to dust.” Chambers can see the kindness and cruelty in the world, but she dwells more in the land of kindness.
This collection offers a range of emotion and acceptance of the varieties of human experience while presenting a strong belief in the interconnections of landscape and life. 

Interview with Creative Non-Fiction Writing Contest Judge, Sarah de Leeuw!

Room magazine's writing contest is officially open! Submission deadline is July 15th 2014. To kick things off, we spoke to our Creative Non-Fiction writing contest judge, Sarah de Leeuw about a few of her writing habits and tips for aspiring applicants

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